One way or another there’s been a lot of talk about dress codes lately. Last week law firm Slater Gordon released a survey which found that female workers are still scrutinised on appearance to a much greater extent than men, and that some are even actively instructed by bosses to change their clothing for the sake of business. What changes are women expected to make? To wear high heels and make-up in client-facing roles, sometimes with the explicit suggestion to be ‘sexier’.
In 2016 it’s pretty depressing that expectations of female appearance should still centre around a particular version of what it is to be female. And the real trouble is that senior staff (predominantly men) still find it acceptable to tell working women how to dress. The point is that it should be up to women themselves how they choose to present themselves, within the levels of formality demanded by their role. Dress is performative – we show aspects of conformity, individuality and identity through our choices – it can be a manner of showing all sorts of things about who we are. To be told how to be is not a good look for the modern workplace. Nicola Thorpe’s campaign earlier this year to prevent employers from imposing the wearing of heels, gained high profile and made an important point about how expectations of appearance can turn into compulsion, which is a bad thing. Campaigns in support of flats shoes at work have followed, and have been good at showing how stylishness can take many forms with no relation to professional competence, but have sometimes tipped towards telling women not to wear heels at work. This seems like falling into the enforcement trap again.
It all got me thinking about how we negotiate our work appearance in the light of personal preferences and social cues. And it’s not just an issue for women. Back in August research was published showing that City firms could pass over male candidates who wore the ‘wrong’ shoes with their suits. Men without experience of mixing in these professional circles, often those from less advantaged backgrounds, might turn up for interview in brown, rather than black shoes, a potent indicator of lack of ‘polish’ which could cost them a job offer. Like junior women being told to wear more make-up by their bosses, these men are in less powerful positions than the senior people assessing their presentability.
So what of the powerful men? What are they wearing as they pass judgement on their more junior staff? The answer is, of course, the suit. The suit is the ultimate signifier of authority, the sign of the professional who means business. Its subdued colours and ubiquity confer a kind of invisibility, and we forget its roots in military history, the jacket vents for horse riding, the shoulder line for epaulettes – reminders of established male power. When we think of leadership, we picture men in suits. As Grayson Perry has written ‘The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man’.
And this notion of seriousness is at the heart of the problems with dress code. Women can find it particularly hard to win on this one. ‘Power dressing’ is often a matter of taking on the suit mantle – tailored jackets, dark trousers. Or adapted via a pencil skirt or a dress under a jacket into a more feminine version of the same. The paradox is, that should a woman take up advice to wear more make-up and heels, she may meet one set of criteria for ‘smartness’ but lose on another to do with being taken seriously. The men in suits still rule, and they can still look at the world with a male gaze.
Coverage of the dress code survey included examples of women negotiating this minefield – a barrister drawing sceptical looks and not being taken seriously when wearing a colourful dress in court, hospitality staff being asked to tone down make-up that was seen a ‘too much’ for highbrow clientele. And you don’t have to look far for examples of academics or of MPs being underestimated because they happen to be presentable and female while doing their jobs. Tonight Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet in the first of this year’s presidential debates, and Hillary is likely to be wearing one of her infamous pantsuits, her solution (like Angela Merkel’s) to the ‘what do powerful women wear amongst all the men in suits?’ conundrum. Tomorrow we should be talking about what she said, and not about her pantsuit. That would be presidential.